Monday, August 24, 2015

Movie - The Front Page

The Front Page (1974) - In 1920's Chicago a newspaperman must decide between marriage and the biggest story of his career. a convicted murderer escapes the night before his execution and falls squarely into the reporter's lap.  The problem is that he is supposed to have quit the paper and prepared to leave for Philadelphia, marriage and a new career.

Billy Wilder wrote and directed this re-make and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon lead a great cast.  So you might expect great things from it.  Sadly, it comes up short.  This is the third movie of the original 1928 play and it's actually Wilder that makes this version stumble.  Because he wanted all the lines to be clearly heard by the audience he had the actors slow their reactions to their cues.  Actors learn to begin their line on top of the last word or so of the cue line, it's called "stepping on the line".  It creates a naturalistic tempo to the conversations.

For this story each line should have tumbled over its predecessor.  The dialogue should crackle, delivered at a breakneck tempo.  Instead we get a very measured cadence that just makes everything drag and the jokes fall flat.

Wilder later said that he was disappointed in the movie and regretted going against his basic distaste for remakes.

The other great disappointment in the movie is the comic great Carol Burnett.  She has never liked her work in this movie and I'm afraid I have to agree.  Her role feels tacked on here, Burnett never really finds a rhythm for the prostitute love interest of the prison escapee.  You never quite figure out if her role is serious, comic or tragic.

Why I Liked It : The cast is a filled with great character actors.  Susan Sarandon, David Wayne, Charles Durning, Austin Pendleton, Vincent Guardinia, Harold Gould and more.  The names may not mean anything to you but you'll recognize the faces.  Just fun to watch them have some fun.

Why You Will Like It - For all the plodding tempo there are some great moments (including a wonderful closing line) and the cast gives some fun performances along the way.

Rated PG.

The movie was a modest box office hit.

Rating - ** 1/2 Almost Worth a Look

Monday, August 17, 2015

Movie Review - Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - Two bright and mature 12 year olds with face many obstacles when they fall in love and want to run off together.  Along the way they will fight battles, face hardships, survive a hurricane and lightning strike and maybe get married along the way.

Does every review of a Wes Anderson movie begin with some variation of "You either like Wes Anderson movies or you don't"?  Anderson creates worlds that teeter on the edge of reality and fantasy without ever fully committing to either.  Thus his worlds look very normal but feel otherwise.  In the end you either like that feel or you don't.  I always enjoy my trips to his worlds.

This is his usual eccentric tale filled with strange and wonderful details.  The girl, Suzy, decides that she needs to bring along her brother's battery powered record player when they escape.  Plus a kitten.  And six rather strange books she's stolen from the library.  There is a pitched battle between the young lovers and a band of "Khaki Scouts" sent out to return Sam (the boy) and Suzy.  As with everything in the movie, it all looks right (two kids run away, you send out search parties) but it doesn't quite feel right (the Khaki Scouts are an intersting group).

Critics gave uniformly good reviews and the movie finished at #74 for the year in gross revenues.

Why I Liked It - A great ensemble cast (another Anderson trademark) including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman.  Each of them approaches their characters with a simple solemnity as they wander through the rather odd world they find themselves in.

Why You Will Like It - There's something warm and beautiful at the heart of the love story here.  A 12 year olds understanding of "falling in love" does exist in its own world, just a half a bubble off from what the rest of us know.  Anderson delivers that world beautifully.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking

Rating - ****

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review - Blind Justice

Blind Justice by Ethan Cross (2015, The Story Plant) -  Deacon Munroe is an agent of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service.  He is smart, experienced, plugged into the circles of power in Washington, D.C., and blind.  Munroe will need all his skills and influence to help his team solve a mystery that gets deeper with every moment.  It begins with the death of the top officer of the United States Marine Corps.  Unless they can untie all the knots in the case it may end with the deaths of thousands of people, including Munroe's loved ones.

"Blind Justice" is a classic thriller, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.  As with the previous book by Ethan Cross I reviewed ("The Prophet", October 2012) the story cooks right along.  Cross is a talented writer with a real feel for action.  He has a couple of nice touches to the standard thriller tropes.  Munroe's blindness offers an interesting twist to the story.  At the same time he resists the urge to make his hero into a superhero.  The DCIS agent has to deal with the real issues raised by his blindness.  I also liked the twist of making the bad guy, Antonio de Almeida, a stroke of conscience.  It is only a veneer but it comes across as, sincere?  By that I mean it's not a tactic to deceive the world but a tactic to perhaps deceive himself.  Unlike a lot of thriller bad guys Almeida feels like there's more substance there.

Which is good because the rest of the cast of baddies are pretty much cardboard cutouts.  That's not a problem because they die with regularity.  That's one of the odd parts about this book for me.  The body count here is high.  Cross introduces a character, walks them through the plot points they need to supply and then, bang, boom, splat, they die.  Given that I've been reading some of the "Game of Thrones" books at the same time, it may not have bothered me as much as it might.  But it's a little strange never the less.

If you love fast paced thrillers with interesting people on both sides of the law you'll be hard pressed to find a better example than Ethan Cross's "Blind Justice".  Just don't plan to do too many other things once you start.  The story will suck you in and keep you hanging on to the very end.

"Blind Justice" hits the shelves on August 25.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, August 10, 2015

Movie - Moon

Moon (2009) - As a three year hitch on the moon comes to an end Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is more than ready to go home.  He's the only person on the lunar mining site and he's beginning to worry about his sanity.  His only "companion" is his station robot assistant GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey).  Just before his relief crew arrives there's an accident and Sam is confronted with a
confusing mystery that may finally unhinge him.

Another movie that brings so much potential to the screen but doesn't quite manage to pull it all together.  There are tastes of "2001 - A Space Odyssey" and "Silent Running" here.  This is a science fiction movie that actually relies on plot rather than special effects to carry it forward.  It is thoughtful with some interesting parallels to our every day lives but doesn't presume to do your thinking for you.  Yet in the end the movie doesn't quite seem to be able to bring everything together.  The tempo turns plodding at several points.  This should be a movie about paranoia and delusion with a plot that slowly builds the psychological pressure until it's almost too much to bear.  But the pressure gauge never really manages to move into the red and the story comes to a quiet, rather wistful end.

The movie is the film debut for director Duncan Jones who does a solid, at times excellent, job.  While getting very positive reviews generally it only earned about its production costs at the box office.

Why I Like It - Sam Rockwell.  This is basically all Rockwell all the time.  It seems like every decade or so there is an actor who I spend a long time looking at and thinking "Wait, who is this?  I know him from somewhere!".  Right now, that's Sam Rockwell.  For better or worse he is always Guy Fleegman from "Galaxy Quest" first but he has done some very interesting work over the years.  This role gives him some truly spectacular chances and he takes them firmly in hand.

Why You Will Like It - In addition to Rockwell's tour de force performance this remains an intelligent science fiction film in an age when there are fewer and fewer of them.

Rating - R for language

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, August 3, 2015

Movie - Around the Bend

Around the Bend (2004) - Henry Lair (Michael Caine) wants to bring his scattered family back together.  His plan involves a trip in a VW mini-bus with his estranged son (Christopher Walken), bitter grandson (Josh Lucas) and great-grandson (Jonah Bobo).  The trip will take them back to a pivotal, legendary moment in family history and reveal some buried answers along the way.

This is a kind of a buddy movie, a kind of a road movie, a kind of a "quest" movie.  It's also a kind of a mess.  There's a kind of surreal feel to all the action, like it's not quite real.  That can work when it's an integral part of the concept.  I don't get the feeling that it is here.  Consequently it only kind of works.

All of this loosely based on director Jordan Roberts VI relationship with his indie film director/lunatic/criminal father Robert Stone Jordan.  The movie may have gotten lost in those personal issues.

The audience liked this more than the critics but not enough to put much money down for tickets.

Why I Liked It - Watching really good actors having fun with interesting roles that aren't like everything else out there is always fun.  Watching Caine and Walken fence through their characters familiar issues is watching great artists weave their magic.

Why You Will Like It - The interplay among the different generations of men in this family will suck you right in.  Caine and Walken and young master Bobo create an intimate, intricate web of relationships that are worth the price of admission.

Rating - R for language

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Books - A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Fire and Ice - series) by George R.R. Martin - (1996-?) The sweeping story of the lands of Westeros where seasons last for years.  Summer is ending, Winter is coming and the world of the Seven Kingdoms must face more than just the beginning a long hard winter.  The king's crown is in play with many reaching for the Iron Throne.  The series begins following nine story lines and expands with each of the succeeding novels to more than thirty.

There's simply no short way of describing the plot of this series.  In the first place, it isn't finished yet.  There are two more books to come in the next couple (?) years.  I include the question mark because the author works at his own pace which can be eccentric compared to standard publishing schedules.

There is a lot to recommend this series.  At the same time you should know going in that there's plenty of violence and sex.  Rape is not only a common topic of discussion among the characters, it takes place regularly during the story.  At the same time there are strong women (one of the most ruthless characters is a woman) in the story. The other thing to note is that the vast majority of these characters are simply awful people.  I'm talking "You'll think Darth Vader and the Nazis might have just been misunderstood" kind of awful  It may be a challenging balance for some people and you ought to be aware of that before you begin.

I have to admit that I am seriously divided on these books.   Martin has created a world that runs on people being horrible.  There is a level of misogny in a lot of fantasy novels but this falls at the high end of the spectrum.  I have an ongoing concern about the "entertainment" value of so much violence in our society.  It seems to be clearly increasing during my lifetime and I worry about what that says about our culture.  I hit the point of the "Red Wedding" in the third book and very nearly walked away from the entire series.  I find no "entertainment" in vile people doing vile things.  I'm not sure if I'm going to resume reading or not.

Why I Liked It - Brilliant story telling and excellent writing.  I was seriously torn as I read the first book because so many of the characters were so repellent.   The question was - did I really want to invite people like this into my life for seven long novels?  What won me over was the quality of Martin's writing.  He creates a vile clan of folks in the Lannisters but at the same time creates a member of that family in Tyrion that hard not to like.  You shouldn't ever trust him but it's hard not to root for the Imp.  The story telling puts this into the "I don't want to put the book down" category.  I roared through the 700+ pages of the second novel, "A Clash of Kings" in less than a week.

Why You Will Like It - The story telling, the characters, the sweeping breadth of the story and the amazing detail of it all.  Martin creates a unique and special fantasy world without ever falling into the stale traps I so often see.  Overly complex stories, ridiculously arcane names or use of created languages to the point that you need a translator to follow along are deadfalls that Martin sidesteps adroitly.

Rating - **** Recommended (With Reservations)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Movie - Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz (2007) - The ultimate arresting machine of a London police officer (Simon Pegg) gets transferred against his will to a tiny English village.  There, with his bumbling partner(Nick Frost), they discover a giant criminal conspiracy that leads to death after death.

For whatever reason there are things in my life that I have to remind myself I like.  Salmon.  Simon Pegg.  I had no idea what to expect and I got all of that and more.  Part of the so-called "Three Flavors of Cornetto Trilogy" along with "Shaun of the Dead" and "The World's End".  Trying to summarize the plot would just be silly because the plot is just...silly.  Sit back, grab some popcorn and have a good time.

Movie gets uniformly good reviews but didn't manage to break into the top 100 grossing movies of the year.  These are very much the attributes of a "cult hit".

Why I Liked It - The interplay between Pegg and Frost.  The uber serious big city cop and the fawning, hero worshipping village copper.  The movie takes on the utterly ridiculous with an even, serious tone that makes everything that much funnier.

Why You Will Like It: Pegg and Frost are great but the rest of the cast is marvelous as well.  Timothy Dalton does a nice turn as the bad guy, Martin Freeman as one of the big city cops that sends Pegg's character into exile, all the various villagers.  You'll like it because it is fun.

Rated R for violent content including some graphic images and language

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, July 20, 2015

Movie - What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) - A former child movie star takes out her anger and self hatred on her sister who is trapped in a wheelchair.

Hard to imagine a story concept less appealing than this.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring their personal, real life loathing for one another to the screen.  What the audience gets is a brilliant, seething, flame war of a movie.  It would be perfectly paired with the equally brilliant "Sunset Boulevard", which examines the acid effects of stardom from a different angle.  You think you had sibling rivalry in your family?  You ain't seen sibling rivalry.  What happened one night years ago haunts both of the sisters.  In the original promotional pieces audiences were asked to keep the ending a secret from folks who hadn't seen it yet.  It all still plays beautifully fifty plus years later.

Why I Liked It - I will confess to not being a huge fan of either Davis or Crawford going into the movie.  Yet at the decline of their careers each found roles that will be remembered forever.  Every time you think that Davis's "Baby Jane" can't be any more vicious, can't sink any lower she shows you something new.  That she was willing to let the movie make her ever more hideous looking speaks to Davis's dedication to the role.  Crawford meanwhile plays a softer, more vulnerable character than I normally associate with her career.  The sibling relationship is a train wreck of monstrous proportions but one from which you will not be able to look away.

Why You Will Like It: Two great actresses at the height of their talents.  The combustion that takes place on the screen will consume their world.

Pre-rating system movie.  Intense, not for children.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommend

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Books - Cult Sci-Fi Movies And Some Wore Blue, Some Wore Gray

Still tyring to get caught up on books, so doubles for another week.

Cult Sci-Fi Movies by Danny Peary (2014) - Ten essays on some of the best science fiction movies of all time.  This book is one of a series of books on cult films (Horror, Crime, Midnight Movies).  Here
he takes on an interesting list including Barbarella, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet and 2001 plus some lesser known ones like Liquid Sky and Zardoz.  The author's love of the movies shines through in each essay.  I had to wonder what I was getting into when I saw that "Barbarella" was the opening essay.  While Peary acknowledges the punch-line legacy of the movie, he also notes that there's more there than meets the eye.  He dives deep into who Jane Fonda was, how the character fits into the larger landscape of her career and her relationship with her then husband and "Barbarella" director, Roger Vadim.  The result is a review that is probably deeper than the movie is but it's also a sign of the kind of thoughtful work that is to follow.

What you get with each essay is solid look at the background of each film - where the idea came from, who were the creative team members that created it behind the scenes and on camera, then a detailed synopsis, his review and a list of movies you might also enjoy.  This last piece is another gem of the book.  He doesn't just go for the easy ones, most lists are at least five movies.  For "Barbarella" he suggests (among others) both "The Fifth Element" and "Tank Girl".

Reading another critics reviews of movies is an invitation to get full of yourself and feel the need to nitpick.  I didn't always agree with every point but there's no doubt that Peary does a careful and well crafted job on each of these pieces.  If you love Sci-Fi movies I would certainly point you toward this book.  Great conversation starters for you and your friends.

Peary is a veteran film critic and sportswriter.
The book is available through Workman Publishing Company.

Rated - **** Recommended

Some Wore Blue, Some Wore Gray by Heather Graham (2013) - A series of short biographies of some of the most famous and lesser lights of the Civil War.  Written by veteran romance author
Heather Graham, this was a personal project that she published on her own out of her love for history and the Civil War period.   The Lincoln's (both President and Mrs.), the Grants, the Lees and Davises are all included.  But so is Clara Barton, George Armstrong Custer, Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow.  Each chapter approaches the subject as a real person and not as an historic icon which is always refreshing when dealing with some of these figures.

The writing has a very casual feeling to it, perhaps appropriate for the personal project nature of the book.  It reads much less like a history tome and more like a conversation with an interesting fan of the subject.  This also makes the book a very quick read.  At only 79 pages it wasn't going to be a long read under any circumstances.

For the serious history fan these are pretty lightweight stuff.  It is nice to see the lesser known faces get a moment in the spotlight.  It would be a fine starting point for someone looking to increase their familiarity with the time period and some of the important names of that time.

The book is self published by Heather Graham on Smashwords

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, July 13, 2015

Movies - Flight time reviews

Had the opportunity to do some trans-Atlantic flying, which is always a good time to catch up on recent movies I've missed.  I saw three on this trip.

Kingsman - The Secret Service (2014) - Her Majesty's most secret service is looking to fill a vacancy in their elite force just as a new international threat arises.

Yes, a Bond tribute
Sigh.  This one disappointed me the most.  Mainly because it begins so well.  It wants to play along the seam between serious spy flicks (the Bourne movies) and spy parodies (Matt Helm).  It sticks more to the fun and laughs side, which is fine because it does it so very well.  In the end (if you've seen the movie you know what a terrible play on words that is) it falls into a juvenile  fascination with stylized violence and finishes in the worst possible way.  Samuel L. Jackson playing the bad guy is simply painful to watch.  The character may work on the graphic novel page but it fails miserably on the screen.  The closing scene is an utter disappointment that should have been rejected and sent back to be re-written.  A wickedly, wonderful first half gradually deteriorates into that wretched, wretched ending.

Why I Liked It - Colin Firth, as the Kingsman known as Galahad (yes, the code names are all Knights of the Round Table) is worth the price of admission all by himself.  On the surface the perfect old school English gentleman.  Refined, educated, well spoken.  You don't want to get on his bad side however, because he will kick your butt.  Combined with Taron Eggerton as "Eggsy" the street wise young man that Galahad nominates for the Kingsman the movie is a lot of fun.

Why You'll Like It: Some fun action, especially early on, a quirky concept that touches all the right bases, a story line that will carry you along until faltering in the final half hour.  Watch for Mark Hamill (I kept looking at the character and thinking "Why does he look familiar?").  It's a really fun riff on spy movies.

Rated R

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) - A washed up actor, whose greatest claim to fame were superhero movies early in his career, tries to re-ignite his star with a Broadway play.  He is gambling everything on recovering his family, his life, his career and perhaps his sanity.

Keaton takes us into an intensely personal venture for the lead character.  This is the last thread that is holding him together and it just might save him.  To keep his grip he will have to learn to let his ego be overshadowed by various people around him.  A stunning performance.  Almost two weeks after I watched it I still don't know what to make of the final five minutes.  Director  leaves you wondering.  Given the brilliance of the rest I'm willing to go along with the ending.  It's sure to cause many discussions.  One of the best movies I've seen this year.

Why I Liked It - Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton.  Which is a good thing since he is on screen almost constantly.  Keaton climbed out on a professional limb here.  It is a role unlike any other he's tried.  He also had to know that the instant reaction for a large portion of the audience was going to be that he was playing a riff on his own career.  For the younger generation the only thing they associate him with is Batman.  (If that's you check out Beetlejuice, Johnny Dangerously, heck he's even done Shakespeare in Kenneth Brannagh's "Much Ado About Nothing".)  In reality, his career has a couple bright spots and a bunch of middling offerings.  This one should go on the plus side.  I love when an actor takes a risk.

Why You Will Love It - Watching Keaton's character dance along the edge of madness, fighting to save everything worth having in his life, is a powerful and engaging story.  He's reached the point where his only recourse is honesty.  A bit of business that he has very little experience with so far.  Trying to find his way back to family and fame while fighting off the demon inside his head is just powerful stuff.

Rated R

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

Ex Machina (2015) - A reclusive computer genius billionaire brings a young computer expert to his remote compound to test his latest creation.  It is a potential artificial intelligence in the form of an attractive young woman.  The question is - has true AI been achieved?  The unexpected question is - what will our relationship to that new intelligence be?

Ponderously paced, the movie takes itself far too seriously.  In the end it is an extended riff on the "robot as sexual plaything" trope that never adds much to what has gone before.  In the end it never really arrives at a point other than we will probably create a new intelligence that reflects our own duplicitous nature.

Why I Liked It - I didn't really.  There are some mildly interesting visual things going on but that's about it.  The movie takes forever to get anywhere, the two main male characters are either a creep or a zero.  While I wanted to root for Ava in the end there's just not much there till the absolute final moments.

Why You Will Like It -  You probably won't.  Once you get over looking at how they make Alicia Vikander (who plays the robot Ava) appear to be part flesh and part machine, you'll get bored by the script that goes no where.  Which actually makes the ending a relief.

Rated R

Rating - ** Not Impressed